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Caring Less About Work Is Helping Me Survive

A Personal Perspective: I will no longer sacrifice myself as a martyr at my job.

 Ben White/Unsplash
Source: Ben White/Unsplash

I think I care too much.

Everyone tends to compliment me on how hard I work and how patient I am with my work. They applaud my commitment and devotion.

But I’ve recently realized that working too hard, being overcommitted, and being over-devoted are not always positive traits.

Work has not been going well

I don’t want to get too into details, but as a special education teacher, I feel like I haven’t done the best job staying on top of my documentation or serving my kids in my classroom. Some attempts to redirect behavior have not been very effective, and the lesson plans I thought about for days have not worked well.

The day after my worst day of the school year last year, I made a mental shift. In my mind, I gave up a bit. I started caring less. I wasn’t going to fuss about every phone that was out or every student who put their head down and slept during my class. We have a firm mask mandate, and some of my students will not pull up their masks even if I ask them to several times. I wasn’t going to micromanage or go above and beyond to redirect a student who wasn’t focused or didn’t want to do their work.

Instead, I controlled what I could control

I had to make mental reminders to stop caring about kids I couldn’t reach on that day. I had to focus on the students who wanted to learn for the day, get support from a hall monitor for students who weren’t doing what they were supposed to do, and just let it go.

I would be lying if I said this magically fixed everything, that the class that had been giving me a hard time all week magically got itself together and was the perfect, picturesque classroom. I still have high expectations, and many students did not meet them.

However, what I will say is I left the day with a much more positive attitude than I did the rest of the week. I stopped caring so much about what other staff members in the building thought about me. I protected my mental health and well-being by just letting go and not letting outcomes that weren’t in my control bog me down.

With that mindset, it just felt like a sustainable path forward. By caring less, I wasn’t coming home with a world of stress. Instead, I focused on what I could control and stopped obsessing over what I couldn’t.

What happened when I let go

While everything at work isn’t perfect, I did learn to detach a bit. I know my kids can’t see me with my mask on, but I smiled for the first time in a while, divorcing myself from the pressure. Constantly letting the actions of others define how my day goes is not the best path forward.

Sure, I may have higher goals and expectations. But the reality of life is that not all our goals and expectations are met. I believe there’s a higher plan for all of this, and there are more important things than just teaching. Sure, we might know how important educating youth is, but becoming too attached and too involved in students’ lives usually just sets you up for burning out.

On a maturity level, becoming OK with imperfection is also how the world works. My students and my classes are making progress — the progress is simply not as fast as I would like it to be.

But detaching allows me to take a step back and realize a couple of things: My students want to try, do the right thing, and learn. They’re still kids, and they’re human beings, and even I, as an adult, don’t feel like working all the time. I go on my phone at work meetings, too.

I remember in my first year, a student complained about always needing to be in his seat, not having the chance to play, and being a child with the need to have more fun and entertainment in his daily life. I thought it was an incredibly wise comment, but I still felt bound by administrative guidelines and expectations that limited the ability for students to play.

Systemically, the education system needs to change on significant levels. But it is so hard to think about what needs to happen systemically and zoom out when you’re just trying to survive on a day-to-day basis.

For now, I remind myself that I have to live in this world too. I can’t sacrifice myself as a martyr for the cause. I can’t utterly dread coming into work every day, and although I have great support and work with terrific colleagues, I realize part of the stress is the pressure I put on myself. I can’t go forward sustaining this level of stress for the sake of my health, so something has to give.

It’s easier said than done, but it’s time to let go, care-less, and chill out for a bit — for myself and my students.

This post was also published on Index.